The Toxic Assumption of the ‘Biblical Worldview’

Kinnaman_Lyons_Unchristian_smI’m working my way through unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity … and Why It Matters, the groundbreaking book from David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons of the Barna Group. It’s taking a little longer than I expected because, surprise!, it’s tough to get through a book based primarily on survey results and data.

It’s also a tough read because I find myself disagreeing with it more than I thought I would. The data is the data, of course, but the conclusions Kinnaman and Lyons reach seem a little off to me. It reminds me of hearing Republican Party leaders talk about how they need to change their “message” and “tone” after getting shellacked in the 2012 elections without seeming to understand that voters have decisively rejected their policies.

Likewise, Kinnaman and Lyons have compelling evidence that traditional theology and practice have failed yet seem to argue that what traditional evangelical Christianity needs is a different message and tone. It seems they can’t quite face the fact that their own data calls into question their own doctrines.

A key example of this is their presentation of the results when they asked if a respondent has a “biblical worldview.” Here’s how Kinnaman sets it up:

Of course, this [fact that the about 70 percent of Americans claim to have made a personal decision to follow Christ] raises the question of the depth of their faith. If that many Americans have made decisions to follow Jesus, our culture and our world would be revolutionized if they simply lived that faith. It is easy to embrace a costless form of Christianity in America today, and we have probably contributed to that by giving people a superficial understanding of the gospel and focusing only on their decision to convert.

I have no problems with this paragraph at all. But note that he’s talking about needing a deeper “understanding of the gospel,” which is interesting, given what comes next:

At Barna we employ dozens of tools to assess the depth of a person’s faith. Let me suggest one for our discussion: a biblical worldview. A person with a biblical worldview experiences, interprets and responds to reality in light of the Bible’s principles. What Scripture teaches is the primary grid for making decisions and interacting with the world. (75)

What happened here? In traditional evangelicalism, “biblical worldview” is something of a code for “conservative doctrine” that treats the Bible as a fully applicable roadmap for life in the 21st century, notwithstanding its final authorship no later than the 2nd century. By linking “deeper understanding of the gospel” and “biblical worldview,” Kinnaman has forced together two different arguments. Certainly a deep understanding of the gospel requires reliance on the Bible; no one disputes that, I hope. But Kinnaman is implying a deep understanding of the gospel requires reliance on a specific method of reading and applying what the Bible says, which is problematic. I would argue it’s one of the reasons why Kinnaman’s own data show young people  abandoning the church.

But perhaps I’m wrong about that. “Biblical worldview” is a slippery term, after all. Perhaps the definition is considerably larger than the term implies.

In fact, Kinnaman offers eight elements of a biblical worldview:

  1. Jesus Christ lived a sinless life.
  2. God is the all-powerful and all-knowing Creator of the universe, and he still rules it today.
  3. Salvation is a gift from God, and it cannot be earned.
  4. Satan is real.
  5. A Christian has a responsibility to share his or her faith in Christ with other people.
  6. The Bible is accurate in all of the principles it teaches.
  7. Unchanging moral truth exists.
  8. Such moral truth is defined by the Bible.

Oh, my. That, friends, is what the kids today call a hot mess.

What are we to do with this list? It ranges from the impossibly vague – what qualifies as a “principle” taught by the Bible? – to the bizarrely specific – believing the figure of Satan is a metaphor for the evil forces in the world would disqualify you from having a “biblical worldview.” The first item is probably the least controversial, but it’s hard to see how believing it makes any difference to your worldview, as Jesus’ sinless life, while important for atonement theology, is not very relevant by itself. The problem is that the important, relevant piece of Jesus’ life that will really shape your worldview – his miracles, teachings, death and resurrection – is quite contested; there is no single overarching belief on how it all fits together, so choosing, for example, penal substitutionary atonement as a marker for a “biblical worldview” would unnecessarily draw lines in the sand.

On the other hand, the authors do that very thing by claiming God’s omnipotence and omniscience as elements of a biblical worldview even those those terms are not in the Bible, and the Old Testament in numerous places portrays Yahweh as neither of these things (he expresses surprise, changes his mind, is talked out of taking certain actions, etc.).

Likewise, there are plenty of biblical texts that give quite the opposite impression than the authors assume about how salvation is achieved (note for example Matthew 25, where the sheep are divided from the goats not based on who accepts God’s free gift of salvation but by who did more to care for the needy). And finally there are the very real questions of how the Bible defines “moral truth,” because it’s defined differently in Leviticus than it is in the Gospels, and differently still in Romans or Galatians, and that’s without raising the question of which teachings provide “moral truth” and which provide culturally conditioned suggestions for living. For example, there are very good reasons why the presumed immorality of homosexuality is in doubt, and it has little to do with people deciding to abandon “moral truth” or a “biblical worldview.”

Now remember that this impossible list is created to assess the depth of a person’s beliefs, specifically the depth with which she follows the gospel. Note the assumptions present in the next paragraphs:

In our research, we have found that people who embrace these eight components live a substantially different faith from other Americans – indeed, from other believers. What we believe influences our choices.

Getting back to the issue of spiritual depth, if two-thirds of young adults have made a commitment to Jesus before, how many do you think possess a biblical worldview? (75)

So having a biblical worldview according to these eight criteria is assumed to lead to better choices, greater spiritual depth and a better commitment to Jesus.

Kinnaman in these paragraphs makes classic conservative evangelical mistakes. By assuming the goal he sets is the correct one, then assuming his beliefs are the correct ones required to achieve the goal. These assumptions tend to be narrow, and as a result they exclude many devoted, committed Christians whose views don’t align precisely with them. In other words, Kinnaman follows the same exclusionary methods that are being rejected by the young adults he has studied. Rather than pointing to a solution, he is perpetuating the problem.

How narrow are the assumptions of this so-called biblical worldview? Well, only 3 percent of young adults and 9 percent of older adults subscribe to them – despite 29 percent and 48 percent respectively describing themselves as “absolutely committed to the Christian faith.”

Kinnaman concludes from this data: “We will not be effective with [young adults] if we do not address the problem of superficial faith” (76).

To be fair to Kinnaman, he acknowledges that people will define the phrase “biblical worldview” differently and says, “Faith is not getting a bunch of questions right on a survey.” Indeed, it isn’t, so why use a bunch of questions on a survey to determine whether someone has deep faith?

If the church is to rectify the toxicity with which young adults view Christianity, it needs to break away from these assumptions about how to define stock phrases like “biblical worldview.” Certainly some lines need to be drawn; otherwise, Christianity itself loses meaning as a separate faith. But the traditional tendency to build fences around conservative notions of biblical interpretation and uphold them as the signifiers of true faith and deep commitment is counterproductive.

The voters have spoken: They have rejected the church’s traditional doctrines and the natural consequences to which they have led. We can continue to focus on messaging and tone, rearranging the Titanic‘s deck chairs – or we can draw fewer lines, take down more fences, and move away from the toxic politics of the so-called “biblical worldview.”

14 thoughts on “The Toxic Assumption of the ‘Biblical Worldview’”

  1. Great analysis. As one who would fall in the category of “committed to the Christian faith,” I think there is far too much subjectivity with the 8 criteria the authors list as requisite for deep faith. I know that I certainly wouldn’t meet Barna’s standards.

    I wonder if setting up such a system for literally judging someones faith goes against Christian principles to begin with?

    1. I think it’s a problem of assumptions. Kinnaman is so entrenched in a culture that assumes those eight criteria to be unquestionably true that he doesn’t even realize how problematic they are as a measure of the depth of a person’s faith. Which, as I mention, is part of the problem in the first place. We need to stop assuming our beliefs are normative beliefs because for most everyone else, Christian or not, they aren’t normative at all.

  2. Relevant to the definition of biblical worldview is a book by David Noebel called Understanding the Times. This was my senior bible curriculum in high school. I liked it very much as an apologetic piece but most of your critiques ring true. To gain a deeper understanding if biblical worldview, you also have to explore Noebel’s other defined worldviews. They’re worth looking up briefly.

    1. Yes, I would still recommend it. The data is informative, and not all of the conclusions Kinnaman reaches are so flawed. You just have to make up your own mind about why young adults believe what they do about Christianity; I don’t see many of Kinnaman’s proposed solutions actually helping the problem, but the more important thing is to begin the discussion and identify the problem, which makes this book important.

  3. Presuming it’s a good idea to have an eight point list, I don’t have a problem with some sort of theological statement about the attributes of God. But, like you said, if you are looking for something that’s supposed to change how people act you are eventually going to have to start talking more specifically about morals. The real question seems to me to be whether or not the moral code of the Bible is anachronistic. Pop culture in the U.S. today would say yes. I think the disconnect starts here.

    1. I don’t mind people talking about morals, and using the Bible as a basis. But the problem, undergirded by biblicism, is when one begins presuming that a certain set of assumptions (usually claiming to be based on the “clear language” or “literal meaning” of the Bible) are clearly the moral baseline from which we all should begin. It simply isn’t true. If Christians were more interested in conversations rather than drawing lines based on faulty assumptions, I suspect our image would be much different in our culture, regardless of where we ultimately came down on specific questions of morality.

    2. I think that discussing morals is exactly the wrong way to go. Jesus had precious little to say about morals. Rather, the teachings of Jesus were about being transformed, the priority of God and neighbor and what you give your heart to. IMO, the better part of what is wrong with the church is that it refuses to echo Jesus, trusting that as Jesus said, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good”. When God makes us good – good comes out of us. But the church is faithless and doesn’t trust God to work everything out with his children. Instead it wants to start with one relatively small portion of the fruit of a life transformed by God – good morals – and tell people that putting those good morals on is what is needed.

      IMO, what the culture needs and would be open to is just this message of Christianity – to serve Love, to tend to neighbor and self, to be restored from the damage of sin against and by us, to have hearts which are good, to have our suffering become part of a larger story which brings redemption. But a checklist of ideas about the nature of God, the bible and such – much less a list of morals? No one’s heart longs for that or is transformed by that.

      1. I agree with you that beginning with morals may not be the best starting point. But, then you wrote, “When God makes us good…” What does that mean? How does it work? Also, “to serve Love, to tend to neighbor and self, to be restored from the damage of sin against and by us, to have hearts which are good, to have our suffering become part of a larger story which brings redemption.” Again, what does that mean? These are questions that Kinnamon, et al. seem to be trying to answer. At least, from what I’ve experienced with many evangelicals, these questions lead invariably to how people should act ‘biblically.’ I kinda like the direction that Fred Clark over at Slacktivist takes, It’s about love, love, love. That seems like a good place to start, anyhow.

  4. I’ve been thinking about this worldview idea a fair bit lately–had a “worldviews” course in high school that defined a Christian worldview a bit differently (it used the book The Universe Next Door. But ultimately, the assumption the whole idea seems to rest on is that we should view the world in the same way all Christians have for the last 2000 years. As I study philosophy and the history of ideas I’ve been struck by just how much cultural patterns of thinking and identity change. And so that would make any concept of a biblical worldview absurd—theologies, philosophies and identities have changed so much for 2000 years that I hardly see how you could choose one set of views that would fit all these eras. I’m not sure if I’m quite stating this all clearly…but would appreciate any further thoughts on the matter!

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